Searching for Ragnar Danneskjöld
by Ari Armstrong, April 26, 2003
"If they believe that the purpose of my life
I'm not sure why, until now, I never read Jerome Tuccille's It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand. Part of the reason is that, since he wrote the book in 1971, the volume of libertarian literature has grown to enormity. Hell, I don't even own all the books BY Ayn Rand anymore, much less all the books about her. (The folks at the Ayn Rand Institute keep putting together new books based on Rand's notes and taped lectures.) Tuccille's book just never caught my attention, not until I saw it in John and Molly's stack and asked to borrow it (thanks).
The book is damn funny. It's a quick read -- its 196 pages (plus 11 new pages with the 25th Anniversary Edition) turn quickly. This is pop history, not deep theory, so most of the pauses in the reading are caused by sudden bouts of laughter. What are we to make of a book that, when discussing Rand's comments about pollution, adds, "Ayn, you sweet, lovable, crazy bitch"? (Hint: don't lend your copy to your ARI friends.) David Friedman writes in his foreword, "If you are looking for a careful scholarly history of the libertarian movement... you had better look somewhere else. But for a vivid and entertaining picture of the early years... [Tuccille's book] has no equal."
For a lot of my friends, the libertarian movement is bound up with the Libertarian Party. But Tuccille's history ends in mid-1971, whereas the LP wasn't founded until that December. Today, the most prominent strategical argument among libertarians is whether they should direct their activism through the LP. Back then, that obviously wasn't an issue.
Tuccille's entire history took place before I was born. By contrast, the LP has existed nearly my entire life. So, reading his book, I feel like I'm getting back to my roots. That's a strange thing to say, and I think it reflects the relative maturity of the libertarian movement today. I mean, we're actually a coherent, recognizable group. Those zany days when Karl Hess gave inflammatory speeches "in olive-green battle fatigues" (113) have given way to boring think-tank scholars in pin-stripe business suits.
At the same time, I've met some of the characters who populate the story: Murray Rothbard (whom we've now lost), Walter Block, a mellowed Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, George Reisman. I guess that makes me a "fourth generation" libertarian. I was practically born into it -- my dad read me Anthem when I was a kid and handed me Atlas Shrugged (and Friedman's Free to Choose) in high school. So for me, too, it began with Ayn Rand.
Today it is fashionable for libertarians to say they are neither liberals nor conservatives, aligned with neither the right nor the left. And that's true to a large degree. But it was not always so. Just over half of Tuccille's book is devoted to two parts: "The Fracture" and "The Coalition." The fracture was between libertarians and the Buckleyite conservatives; the coalition was a new "Radical Libertarian Alliance." The modern libertarian movement was largely forged in reaction to Bill Buckley and, later, to Richard Nixon. The line of "classical liberalism" runs through the Old Right to modern libertarianism.
Tuccille describes the libertarian critique of Buckley, which very much has carried over to the contemporary debate between libertarian war skeptics and neoconservative hawks:
[Buckley] held two irreconcilable premises to be absolute truths. The first stated that the individual had the right to remain free from all outside intervention in his life so long as he conducted his affairs in a nonaggressive manner. This was libertarian philosophy, pure and simple. The second premise stated that the existence of atheistic communism was the single greatest evil mankind faced on earth, and that a powerful American nation-state was the only effective means of protecting our Western heritage from destruction by this insidious Red menace... When he later realized that this [union] was an impossible dream -- primarily because a large military establishment depends heavily on a military draft and high taxation, profoundly anti-libertarian measures -- he was forced to readjust his political formulations and speak of the "temporary suspension of individual liberties" until international communism could be defeated. (38-9)
I have heard exactly the same argument in recent weeks, only replace the phrase "international communism" with "Islamic terrorists." (Will we ever run out of substitutes?) Ironically, as I've previously noted, today's Objectivists are picking up a lot of the neoconservative themes, even though Objectivists tend to be militant atheists whereas the Buckleyite conservatives tend to be militantly opposed to atheism.
Of course, given the enemy of our enemy is our friend (?), because Murray Rothbard was antiwar, the Objectivists can be confidently pro-war. (Tuccille reviews some of the personality issues that poured gasoline on the fiery relationship between Rand and Rothbard.) In 1965, Rothbard even created a group in New York called Left and Right, Inc. (72) Tuccille explains:
Both the radical Left and the libertarian Right were opposed to the war; both favored the massive reduction of America's international military presence and a return to military neo-isolationism; both endorsed the concept of a volunteer army to replace the military draft; both opposed our state-corporate economic system and central planning by a ruling elite in Washington; both favored political decentralization and the control of essential institutions at the local level. (89-90)
It is interesting to note here that, on the issue of the draft, we won. The handful of Congresscritters who proposed reinstating the draft were practically catapulted off stage. Generations X and Y simply will not tolerate it. And the loss of life on both sides of the Iraqi war, as terrible as it was, was nothing like the loss in Vietnam. U.S. casualties number just above 100, and Iraqi civilian casualties number over two thousand (by one estimate. I haven't seen an estimate for the number of Iraqi soldiers who were killed.) Yes, there's the new police-state legislation and the scores of billions of dollars of U.S. war debt. But at least in a limited way, the neocon hawks were forced to reckon with the libertarians.
Tuccille describes how the libertarians finally split from the Buckleyites, back in the summer of '69. But I'm not going to give that part away -- you'll have to read the book!
But what in the hell is a Galambosian? Well, it turns out few people know. It's named after a guy named Joseph Andrew Galambos. When Tuccille asked a self-described Galambosian a question about his beliefs, he replied, "I am not at liberty to say. The theory was originated by Andy Galambos and it is his primary property." And so natural selection weeded out this idea for its inability to procreate.
If there is a theme to Tuccille's book, it is his search for Ragnar Danneskjöld, the pirate in Rand's Atlas Shrugged who takes money from the corrupt government and gives it back to its victims. The Ragnar character is a recurring archetype in libertarian literature. He is Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he is Henry Bowman of Unintended Consequences. He's the guy who fucks with the oppressive state in the name of righteousness and never gets caught.
Trouble is, in the nonfiction world the morgues and the prisons are filled with Ragnar Danneskjöld.
And the people who think they're Ragnar really aren't. "Ragnar, you son of a bitch, you let me down again!" (129)
Tuccille throws a cold cup of reality in the faces of the black-flag wavers. For one thing, the scary fringe alienates Middle America, and the "eventual success of the radical movement, in terms of actually reversing America's push toward the total state, depends to a large extent on middle-class cooperation" (187). What a wry Tuccille is looking for is a "responsible anarchist center" (88).
But Ragnar isn't dead, yet. Tuccille mentions three tactics for changing society for the better: "education, reform, and revolution" (191). By education, Tuccille means "books, articles, essays, and radio-and-television exposure promoting the libertarian point of view." Reform means political reform, changing the system from within. But "[t]he major changes will come about through the use of revolutionary strategy" (192), by which Tuccille means nonviolent civil disobedience. Hey, Gandhi was Ragnar, too.
"Ragnar, you crazy bastard! You may turn out to be a Jewish Mother with a New York accent," Tuccille writes (196). Every libertarian -- every human being with a conscience -- needs a touch of the Ragnarian spirit. Ragnar Danneskjöld hid Jews in the attic to protect them from the Nazis. He spent the night in jail to protest unjust taxation. He helped blacks escape on the underground railroad. He refused to convict somebody for printing the truth about the government, and the judge be damned. He bought Boston's Gun Bible and a .308, just in case. He homeschooled even when the educrats told him he couldn't. He sold illegal marijuana to the sick and dying to relieve their pain. In America, Ragnar Danneskjöld is also spelled, "John Hancock."
Where Ragnar walks among the people, no government grows too oppressive. The power freaks always will push for more, but Ragnar pushes back. Like Gandalf, Ragnar stands firm, strikes his staff on the trail and cries, "You cannot pass!" Ragnar might feel his heart drop to the bottom of his stomach, but he will not avert his eyes.
But when Ragnar is cast out -- well, we dare not let that happen.
Tuccille reminded me that I am part of a long history. And you know, we don't have to be perfect to make a positive difference -- sometimes we can get it wrong (as Ayn Rand did). What tales will they tell of us, when we are old and finally dead?
Libertarians will continue to make the world safer for freedom so long as each of us can say with Ragnar, "[W]e all choose different ways to fight the same battle -- and this is mine."